Putting The COVID-19 Crisis In Perspective

Mar 28th, 2020 | By | Category: Featured Issues

Matthew Lee Anderson writes:  “We can name the moment the COVID-19 pandemic reached the center of the American consciousness: around 8:30 p.m., Central Standard Time, on Wednesday, March 11. In the span of a single hour, the president addressed the nation, the National Basketball Association suspended all its games, and Tom Hanks announced he had tested positive for the illness. Within 24 hours, every major sports league had followed suit, and the prospect of winning $72 in the office March Madness pool was officially stripped from workers across the country.”  The COVID-19 pandemic has struck at the heart of our illusory security.

The COVID-19 (coronavirus) crisis has caused me to reflect on the historical scope of the crisis, how it relates to the Postmodern dogma of personal autonomy, and what God would have us learn.  First, let’s think about COVID-19 in comparison with the 1918 flu pandemic, considered by many historians to be the deadliest in human history—killing at least 50 million people (the equivalent to 200 million today).  Of the 50 million, 500,000 were in the United States. As with today’s pandemic, every part of the world was affected.  What do we know about the 1918 pandemic?

  • Gina Kolata of the New York Times reports that “a majority of those killed by the disease were in the prime of life—often in their 20s, 30s and 40s—rather than older people weakened by other medical conditions.”
  • In 1918, the world was a very different place, even without the disruptive influence of World War I. “Doctors knew viruses existed but had never seen one—there were no electron microscopes, and the genetic material of viruses had not yet been discovered.  Today, however, researchers not only know how to isolate a virus but can find its genetic sequence, test antiviral drugs and develop a vaccine.”
  • In 1918, it was not possible to test people so that they could self-quarantine, and it was impossible to do contact tracing because it seemed to infect entire cities and communities all at once. Furthermore, there was virtually no protective equipment for health care workers, and the “supportive care with respirators that can be provided to people very ill with coronavirus did not exist.”
  • The 1918 pandemic was a disaster in terms of life expectancy. In 1917, life expectancy in the US was 51 years.  It was the same in 1919, but in 1918 it was just 39 years.
  • For the economy, the effects of the 1918 pandemic, despite factory closings and social disruptions, were difficult to entangle from the even more disruptive effects of World War I. Further, “the world was not as interconnected as it is today, and by the summer of 19191, the pandemic had ended.”

Second, let’s review COVID-19’s impact on the key dogma of the Postmodern era, a deep-seated commitment to personal autonomy.  Personal autonomy is viewed by many as the solution to the alienation and despair of the world.  And with the privatization of religious belief, America has thus accepted only two sources of authority in the 21st century:  The authority of the scientific method and the authority of the autonomous individual.  Rooted in the language of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution with their emphasis on rights and liberties, a commitment to personal autonomy is the pervasive ideology of our current civilization.   Any commitment to the authority of a transcendent God, who has revealed Himself, is abandoned.  The authority of the autonomous individual is the most cherished value of our era and is not easily surrendered.  But, COVID-19 is now challenging that.  “Every man doing what is right in his own eyes” is not a satisfactory ideology in the midst of this pandemic.  In my view, this pandemic is undermining the logic of personal autonomy.  How we act, where we go and our need to be sensitive to others and the spread of the coronavirus fosters a sense of community, not autonomy.

In my view, in responding to the coronavirus, the church can pose a counter-cultural challenge to the authority of personal autonomy.  Anderson argues that “The death-dealing of a virus has a pernicious, insidious quality: We never quite know if we are being infected or not. A virus reshapes the whole texture of how we relate to one another, introducing a layer of fear and suspicion that other cataclysmic evils simply cannot do.”  So, how do we respond?   The New Testament documents the counter-cultural nature of the church modeled in the “one another” passages.  Consider just a few of these:

  • Love one another (John 13:34-35)
  • Encourage one another (Hebrews 3:13; 1 Thessalonians 5:11)
  • Serve one another (Galatians 5:13)
  • Carry one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2)
  • Pray for one another(James 5:16)
  • Offer hospitality to one another (1 Peter 4:9)
  • Honor one another above yourselves (Romans 12:10).

To stop the spread of COVID-19, we are now being asked by governmental and medical authorities to surrender our rights and to think of others.  The church should lead the way in doing this.  God created us for community and you see it in the institutions He created—marriage and the family, the state and the church.  Those of us who love Jesus Christ can model this “surrender” by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Perhaps, God will use this crisis to bring about a spiritual renewal, a revival of His church.

Finally, the coronavirus pandemic should drive us to re-embrace the eternal perspective that the Bible advocates.  Anderson correctly observes that  “by turning our eyes beyond this life, we are given it back: ‘Nothing is more likely to destroy a species or a nation,’ [C.S.] Lewis continues, ‘than a determination to survive at all costs . . .  Those who want Heaven most have served Earth best.’   COVID-19 is a palpable reminder of how deeply insecure our lives really are, of how vain our pretenses to control the world can be.  Fear of the coronavirus is not the fear of the Lord. Yet it is a sign of such a fear, a shadow that has fallen across our path that reminds us to look upward as we walk. When we are baptized into Christ’s death, we are liberated for life—for its completion in the knowledge of God who loves the irreplaceable and fragile life he has given to each of us. Moreover, when we love our lives as Christ does, we shall be prepared to lose them as he did.   Cultivating the fear of the Lord in a pandemic age emboldens us to prudently lose our lives for our neighbors (John 15:13).”

COVID-19 is shaking the very foundations of our way of life in the 21st century.  It is demonstrating that Postmodern humans are not in control of as much as we thought.  It is challenging the ideology of personal autonomy and forcing us to care for one another in order to survive.  Finally, it should cause us to think on eternal things.  The material things of this world which often define purpose and meaning can be taken away in an instant.  The riveting questions that must be answered are:  In what do we trust?  Where is our security?  Where is our confidence?  May God use us, His church, as a megaphone to this uncertain, scared world declaring that there is an answer—and it is found in the person of Jesus Christ.

See Gina Kolata in the New York Times (22 March 2020) and Matthew Lee Anderson, “On Living in a Pandemic Age: Augustine, C. S. Lewis, and the Perfection of Fear.” www.christiantytoday.org (20 March 2020).

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One Comment to “Putting The COVID-19 Crisis In Perspective”

  1. Arlie Rauch says:

    Fresh approach but going back to the Bible. Excellent!